“Social distancing” is a phrase that’s dominating news headlines and working its way into everyday conversation. A few months ago, most Americans had never heard of it.
“It’s a strange term,” admits Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — one of the federal agencies that has been pushing the practice of social distancing as a way to slow the spread of the illness caused by the new coronavirus.
“Usually when we talk about health and wellness, it’s all about connectedness and really reaching out and being together with community, family, friends, loved ones. But social distancing means trying to keep some space between you and other people,” Schuchat adds.
For most communities across the country, this idea of space has become the new normal. School districts have canceled classes, professional sports leagues have suspended their seasons, and crowded parks and museums have closed their gates.
It may seem extreme for those unaffected by the illness. But experts say it works. Here’s how.
What, exactly, is social distancing?
Social distancing is not the same as quarantining or isolating oneself. It’s simply “trying to keep some space between you and other people” — about six feet of space, Schuchat says. This is why many public events and activities where individuals are typically crammed close to one another are on hold.
“We think that infections are spread by respiratory droplets, spread when you’re within about six feet of another person. And so avoiding those circumstances where you’re going to be really in close quarters with lots of other people can help achieve social distancing,” Schuchat says.
Space slows the spread
A key concept of social distancing is slowing the spread of the epidemic in order to “decrease the pressure on the health care system,” Schuchat says.
“You can imagine if 100 people were going to get sick over 100 days you would have a certain kind of pressure on the health care system. But if 100 people get sick all in the same day, it’s a different kind of pressure,” she says.
Images of overloaded hospitals in areas that have been hit hard by the virus have illustrated just how dangerous an overwhelmed health care system can be during a pandemic. If society slows the spread, health care workers can “take better care of every individual person,” Schuchat says.